Woodrell’s ninth novel, and his first since Winter’s Bone was a runaway success that inspired a beautiful, Oscar-nominated movie (if we don’t include his tremendous book of short stories, The Outlaw Version), is, in some senses, something of a departure for Woodrell.
A single event – an explosion at a Missouri dance hall in 1929 which kills forty two people – is the anchor for a book that travels in a number of directions. Our narrator, who remains unnamed and not always present, is instructed by his dad (we presume sort of nowish) to ‘tell it. Go on and tell it’ – and tell it he does, recreating the world of his parents and grandparents, and the town in which they lived, offering glimpses of people who perished in the explosion, offering vicious details of a town filled, afterwards, with people who had lost limbs or been badly burned – and of a place in which odd body parts were rescued from gutters, or ignored, in the weeks and months that followed the explosion.
It’s a little bit reductive to recount the story – the narrator’s grandma, Alma (who ‘did not care to be called Grandma or Mamaw’) worked for the Glencrosses, the wealthiest couple in town, Mrs Glencross a sort of stay at home matriarch, Mr Glencross the local banker and a man fondly remembered as the savour of the town during the Great Depression. Unfortunately, despite their wealth, the Glencrosses have something of a loveless marriage and so eventually Arthur takes up with Alm’a somewhat louche sister Ruby and disaster ensues, disaster involving Alma’s at times wayward husband. These various poisoned loves light the tinder that culminates with the fatal explosion.
Why is it reductive? Because The Maid’s Version is a novel the enjoyment of which is in the telling. This feels like the book in which Woodrell makes his claim as ‘one of the world’s greatest novelists’ (a quote from Roddy Doyle on the cover really doesn’t feel way off the mark). I’d compare it to Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams if Denis Johnson hadn’t written Train Dreams years ago (it’s recent publication is out of step with Johnson’s development as a writer and can’t be judged as his first novel since Tree of Smoke) – but there are similarities between the two books nevertheless. There is great complexity here, complex (and it should be said beautiful) sentences compete with complex sections (there is nothing quite as clearcut as a chapter here), each of which angle for space, so many shards of broken mirror (although, again like Train Dreams, the reader never struggles to understand the where and what of the book).
Woodrell is a writer who has often been compared with Faulkner – The Maid’s Version is the first of his novels to really embrace that comparison. He used to be a crime writer who wrote novels that felt better than crime novels, that contained writing that it sometimes felt was too good for genre (and, you knew, would be missed by the mainstream press). He has become, though, an important writer, one of the writers that warrant always being read, whose writing offers the world seen differently, refracted and strange and beautiful and distant and close, seemingly simultaneously. The Maid’s Version is also a novel of questions, questions that even as they are answered, suggest the world is larger than we see, suggesting that questions and answers are somewhat wrongheaded, the world resists reduction.
Finally it is a book that can be offered up, whenever anyone says, ‘what? you don’t read novels do you?’ as if it’s akin to poring over dinosaur bones. You can offer up The Maid’s Version and say, ‘you mean you don’t?’
Any Cop?: A tremendous book, another fine example of what a great writer Woodrell has become and enough to keep the great and growing cadre of wannabe Woodrells (your Rashes and your Bills and your Ray Pollocks) at bay a wee while longer.